Friday Interview: Jack Abramoff, Still Hustling

The notorious former lobbyist and convicted felon is on a well-received rehabilitation tour. But  what, exactly, does he think he did wrong?

Since being released from prison in 2010, Jack Abramoff -- "One of the world's most famous lobbyists and former Washington power players," as his Twitter bio puts it -- has been back in the public eye. First there was his work-release stint at a kosher pizza parlor. Then, last month, he released a memoir, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America's Most Notorious Lobbyist, in which he details his sordid career of influence-peddling and calls for reforms to clean up a system he has belatedly concluded is corrupt from top to bottom.

Abramoff's reincarnation has brought the longtime Republican some unlikely allies, from campaign-finance reformers to Michael Moore. But while he says he's totally repentant, it was harder to tell, in a recent conversation, what precisely he regrets. The following interview has been condensed and edited.

How is the book tour going? Seems like you've been pretty well received.

I thought I would get attacked, and some people certainly are unhappy what I'm saying, and they should be. But the support I've been getting is surprising too. My encounter with Michael Moore was inspiring and extraordinary. I bumped into him on the Lawrence O'Donnell set and was surprised to hear his incredible support for what I'm trying to do, the message I'm trying to get out.

Are you still a Republican?

I don't know if I'm a Republican. I can't vote again ever, so political party is not a relevant thing for me. I'm certainly a conservative, with the same libertarian instincts I had before. My philosophy's probably remained fairly the same. Maybe on criminal justice I have some different approaches -- most people who have been through this do. Certainly it's changed my outlook in terms of the role of special interests and how they play -- how I played -- in the system.

You say you have libertarian instincts, but aren't the congressional ethics reforms you're now advocating an increase in government regulation?

I said 'instincts.' I'm not a complete libertarian. There is a proper role in some areas of the government to have rules and regulations -- I'm not an anarchist. This particular space I'm focused on now is that it's essential that the rules be changed to be certain that people not be allowed to do what I did.

I don't want to say I have the exact answers. As I paced the track in prison, I started thinking these things through. One thing I know from experience is the devil is in the language, the devil is in the details. I have a 30,000-foot analysis of these things. I do have some specific ideas, like barring people from passing through that revolving door that is so dangerous, from public service to private cashing-in-on-things. That's one area I'm fairly adamant that, if one wants to go after the corruption I engaged in, one has to go after. The cooling-off period is a joke. If you make a choice to serve the public and your country, do it and go home.

There's no one silver bullet that would have stopped someone like me or could stop someone like me. Another [element] would be term limits -- I was against them as a lobbyist and I fashioned my opposition in conservative terms. We said we were against them because people should be allowed to vote for whoever they want to, but the truth is, when people are in the system too long they ultimately fall to its lures.

None of this is necessarily things only I thought of. For example, Congress shouldn't make laws that apply to everybody but them, like with this insider-trading business [that's now in the news].

All of the proposals you're talking about would restrict what members of Congress can do, not what lobbyists can do. Do you not think lobbyists are the problem?

A lot of it has to do with Congress. The truth is, the lobbyists are just the tool in the system. They're seen as an invidious tool, but they're just a tool.

One [restriction I'd propose] for people who are lobbyists like I was is that people seeking favors from government should not be allowed to give any political contributions. Cut them off entirely. In essence, it's a bribe -- as are the meals, the tickets, the golf, the travel. All that needs to be cut off entirely.

In blaming 'the system,' though, and in putting the blame mostly on the lawmakers rather than the lobbyists, aren't you sort of absolving yourself?

I am 100 percent at fault for what I did. I absolutely own up to my perfidy, 100 percent. The system is also involved. But I am 100 percent at fault and ashamed of what I did. I crossed lines, I broke laws, I went to prison and I suffered immensely -- I lost my dear mother during this time. In no way am I backing away from the fact that I was wrong.

What, in your view, did you do that was wrong?

What I pled to at the end of the day was that I didn't inform my clients -- who I tried to serve well -- that I was sharing in half the profit of the companies servicing them in the important task of protecting their market share. I pled guilty to that. I also diverted funds into charities that I was supporting, and by doing that I evaded taxes, so I pleaded guilty to tax fraud. Finally, I provided a stream of gifts -- movies, tickets, travel -- basically bribes to members of Congress, and that was honest services fraud. I pled guilty to that as well.

That was illegal and I pled to it and I served a lot of time in prison for it. It was a horrible, horrible time in my life. Having said all that, the big problem in Washington isn't that Jack Abramoff crossed the line and Jack Abramoff got punished. Most of what I did was not illegal. It should have been -- it certainly was wrong, and I should have known it.

I'm having trouble understanding what exactly you regret. You say you crossed lines, which makes it sound like a technicality. I've seen in other interviews you've said you don't agree with the prosecutors who say you ripped off your clients. Who do you think was hurt by your actions?

That's probably for others to conclude. I've admitted to what I've pled to. That I well served my clients I think is evident in the numerical analysis of the results I achieved -- for the $80 million we charged, we delivered about $6 billion of value to them.

The deal I had with my clients was dissimilar to that of other lobbyists. Most lobbyists you hire on a contract for one or two years at a time. My deal was, no contract -- at any time if you don't like me, fire me. They never did, until [it became politically toxic]. Ultimately, my work for them was recharacterized as fraud and harmful. But clearly while I was there, we were protecting their market share and gaining immense value for them on Capitol Hill.

What do you think it was about your personality that drew you to the life you had?

I'm a hypercompetitive individual. I got into a business that was constant warfare, which I loved, on behalf of clients who I loved their issues, I loved fighting for them. We started winning battles and we won virtually every battle -- in fact, there was only one we lost [when Abramoff failed to convince Sen. Chris Dodd to slip language favoring the gambling interests of a Texas Indian tribe, the Tiguas, into an election reform bill]. Even after I was already destroyed and out of lobbying, I was still trying to find a way to wrangle that language into legislation from the tables at my restaurant, it so galled me to have this defeat on my record.

That kind of attitude, while hilarious in retrospect, was deadly in terms of my practice. This win-at-all-costs mantra or ethos leads you down paths where you shouldn't go. And while I was winning all these victories for my clients, we were making them a lot of money, saving them tons of money, I'm making a lot of money and giving 80 percent of it to charities and needy people, so I think this is great. We had seven kids living in our house beyond our five, kids who needed a place to live. At every turn I was saying, 'This is good,' instead of being able to pull back and say, 'Wait a minute.'

It kind of sounds like you're still justifying yourself and what you did. You're still lobbying, in a way, and still seeking attention and validation for your latest cause.

It would have been a lot easier for me to stay hidden. These attacks on me hurt. I don't like it when people say what they do about me. I made a conscious decision to take more heaping opprobrium on my head -- which has come, by the way. The positive response of a number of people doesn't [make up for] the attacks of a whole different group. 

People ask me why they should believe I'm sincere, and my answer is, I'm not trying to gain friends or become popular again. That was very important in those days. It's not important to me now. I couldn't care less. People ask, 'How do we know you're being honest now?' I say, you don't know. What does it matter? I'm not telling you things about me, I'm telling you things about the system so you understand the system. How do you possibly undo the reputation that I have? I could be Mother Teresa and I couldn't undo it. At least I have the liberation of knowing that I set about trying to do the right thing.

Congress's approval ratings are in the single digits, though. Isn't it a pretty easy sell, telling people Congress is all screwed up? Everybody hates Congress.

Congress doesn't hate Congress. I have a lot of friends, even people who stuck by me, who are upset at me right now.

Image credit: AP/Dennis Cook